From the Archives: Echoes of Notre Dame's Peaceful Activism
The 1960s were a period of profound change, and Notre Dame experienced its own share of upheaval as the Vietnam War sparked protests on campuses nationwide. Influenced by the progressive ideals of Vatican II, Catholic peace activists at Notre Dame began to question state-sanctioned violence. Fast forward to the post-9/11 era, and Notre Dame again became a crucible for student activism, this time in response to conflicts in the Middle East. This article explores the parallels between past protests against the Vietnam War and the University's response to Middle East conflicts, highlighting Notre Dame's enduring commitment to global social justice.
Questioning the War: Student and University Responses to Protests against the Vietnam War
Notre Dame was not spared from the currents of change affecting the country and the Catholic Church in the 1960's. As the Vietnam War began to be perceived as unwinnable, protests started erupting across university campuses around the United States, including at Notre Dame. Legitimized by the new language espoused by Vatican II, Catholic peace activists at Notre Dame were emboldened to push back more forcefully against the use of violence by the state.
Observer Archives. Feb. 9, 1968.
The first major demonstration against the Vietnam War occurred on February 7, 1968. Students gathered at the Main Building to protest recruiting interviews that Dow Chemical Company, the manufacturer of napalm used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, was holding on campus. It was a landmark moment in the history of the University because it marked the first time that a “radical” demonstration was permitted within a University building. Protests continued throughout 1968. On November 20, anti-war students engaged in a four hour-long sit-in to block a CIA recruiter from conducting interviews. The students stated that they would end their sit-in “on the one condition that the [CIA] representative speak and answer questions.” However, CIA policy did not allow the representative to speak publicly.To the demonstrators, institutions such as Dow and the CIA played a role in the escalation of violence in Vietnam. Peter Michelson of the English department stated that “Dow has a greater responsibility to the suffering of the world than simply to profit from it.” Many of the demonstrators were also unwilling to block the paths of the interviewees, with Professor Vincent Lannie saying, “It’s a question of conscience. I feel that I cannot block their paths, but I respect those who feel they must. I shall continue this Christian witness here where I sit.”
Observer Archives. Oct. 16, 1969.
The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was a massive movement on October 15, 1969 that involved demonstrations and teach-ins across the country. Once again, students, faculty and staff at Notre Dame participated. Scheduled events included vigils, a walkout and rally, teach-ins and other presentations about the war and an act of civil disobedience where students ripped up draft cards. St. Mary’s held similar events.Numerous groups at Notre Dame supported the Moratorium in various ways. Members of the English Department circulated a petition to cancel all classes on October 15. The Morrissey Hall Council also passed a resolution supporting the Moratorium. The resolution “deplores the senseless loss of life in Vietnam” and questions “the wisdom and morality of our country’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict.”The Moratorium events had a profound impact on students. Over 2,000 joined the rally. Speakers emphasized both the moral issues of the Vietnam war but also peaceful means to challenge the government. One anonymous St. Mary’s freshman said afterwards, “It is beautiful to see people turning out to express their opinions.”
The Fifteen Minute Rule and Subsequent Expulsions
As demonstrations against the Vietnam War grew more disruptive, Fr. Hesburgh sought to maintain order by establishing the fifteen minute rule. In a letter to the Notre Dame community dated on Feb. 7, 1969, Fr. Hesburgh wrote that “anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or non-violent, will be given fifteen minutes of meditation to cease and desist.” People who do not comply would be immediately expelled.The so-called fifteen minute rule was tested for the first and only time on November 19, 1969 when a group of students attempted to block Dow and CIA recruiters. When Dean of Students Fr. James L. Riehle tried to intervene, some students refused to leave. “You have 15 minutes to clear this doorway. I have no choice, you have forced my hand,” Fr. Riehl told them.In the end, five students were expelled and five others were suspended. According to Fr. Riehl, the harsh enforcement of the rule “definitely had an effect on the general feeling in the group,” but he declined to predict what would happen with future demonstrations. Later, the expulsions were reduced to suspensions and seven of the ten completed their degrees at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame's Response to Conflict in the Middle East Post-9/11
In the wake of 9/11, the University of Notre Dame became a crucible for student activism, reflecting the nation's tumult over conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This period marked a resurgence of the University's long-standing engagement with global social justice issues.The activism at Notre Dame during this time can be better understood in the context of the broader community's history of engagement with global issues. Peter Walshe, a Notre Dame government professor, emphasized that the city of South Bend had been vocal in protests against “apartheid in South Africa and the Contras in Nicaragua.”As major cities worldwide witnessed large-scale protests, Notre Dame and Saint Mary's students were not mere bystanders. This activism extended beyond local demonstrations, with several students traveling to major cities to participate in larger protests.The campus community's perspectives were diverse. “Pro-war, anti-war, pro-troops, and pro-peace voices could be heard on both campuses,” reflecting the complex and multifaceted nature of the debates surrounding the wars. This diversity of thought was critical in shaping the University's discourse.
Observer Archives. Feb. 17, 2003.
Notre Dame senior Jemar Tisby (‘02), speaking at a rally, highlighted the challenges faced by advocates of non-violence: “There are a lot of people opposed to non-violence ... they look at me like I've said a four-letter word in church.” His words captured the difficulty of promoting peace in a time of widespread conflict.Amid global upheaval, Notre Dame students took their activism beyond campus borders, with “several students” traveling “to New York and Chicago to participate in protests in addition to organizing forums and demonstrations on campus.” Their journey to these major cities signified a commitment to engaging with broader national and international movements, seeking to amplify their voices in larger, more diverse arenas.
Observer Archives. May 16, 2003.
Veteran and pacifist Peter Smith represented another facet of the anti-war sentiment. He urged for a redefinition of America's global role. “Let's pull back from being a military superpower. Let's become a humanitarian superpower,” he said, advocating for a shift from military intervention to humanitarian aid.The human cost of the conflict was acutely felt on campus. “Though it is unclear whether anyone from the Notre Dame or Saint Mary's community died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, several Notre Dame professors were sent to fight.” The injury of Dustin Ferrell (‘00) in Iraq, who was awarded a Purple Heart, brought the war's consequences closer to home.These protests often culminated in poignant moments, such as the one described in a 2003 article: “After marching for about 30 minutes the marchers gathered in an empty lot a short distance from the church. They concluded with a moment of silence and then a prayer for peace as well as the leaders who fight for peace and justice around the world.”The Notre Dame community's response to the post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East, marked by diverse opinions, passionate activism, and a deep commitment to peace and justice, remains a significant chapter in the University's history.